The most surprising thing to me about working at Shapeways so far is how people respond to copyright takedown notices.  In fact, it is fundamentally changing the way I think about online copyright debates.

Before I came to Shapeways I worked on online copyright policy issues, so I thought I had a pretty good understanding of the copyright notice and takedown process.  A user uploads a file to a website like Shapeways. A brand sends Shapeways a notice claiming that the user is infringing on their rights.  Shapeways takes the file down and tells the user.

In the classic model, this process gives the user a choice: she can recognize that she is probably infringing and keep the file down, or she can claim that the brand is wrong to order the file down - maybe because of fair use, maybe because she has a license, maybe because the brand just picked the wrong file by mistake - and order it back up.  There is a lot of nuance lost in this model (many people who should challenge takedowns are intimidated by the legal process and don’t, for one), but it is still the classic textbook model for how the process works.

While this model plays out every day, there is an additional option that I didn’t fully appreciate: the user recognizes that they are infringing but desperately wants to be put in contact with the brand so she can get a license.  She wants to find a way to partner with the brand, sharing revenue and working together.  In many cases, the takedown notice is a gift because it is the first time she has been able to communicate with anyone from the brand at all.

A Third Way

The online copyright debate is often characterized by two archetypes: the unrepentant pirate and the stifled free speaker. The unrepentant pirate works hard to undermine global creativity by making music, movies, and everything else freely available online without regard for consequences.  The stifled free speaker (or, if you prefer, proud mother sharing videos of her child with her family) is unjustly silenced by overzealous copyright owners.  

There is a truth in each of these, while at the same time each paints with too broad a bush.  But focusing on this dichotomy masks a third, growing category: the eager partner.  

The eager partner does not lurk in the shadows of the internet, motivated by a desire to make all copyrighted content available for free. Neither is she making expressive use of content in a way that does not require approval from brands.  Instead, the eager partner is consciously building on existing IP – often IP that she has a deep emotional connection to – in a way that probably does require some sort of license agreement.  

She is not trying to hide from the brand.  She does not think that the brand’s opinion of what she is doing is irrelevant.  The eager partner wants more than anything else to become an official partner of the brand, and is more than happy to send the brand a percentage of her revenue in exchange for doing so.  She just doesn’t have a way to make that partnership happen.  (These characteristics set her apart from the rich trove of fan artists whose work is protected by fair use). 

Potential Win Win With Partnerships and Licenses

Today, brands are failing to take advantage of these eager partners.  The eager partner is not trying to avoid the brand – the eager partner wants to work with the brand.  There are obvious benefits to this sort of partnership.  For the eager partner, there is the ability to share – and sell – their creations with full approval from the brand.  The eager partner also gets a deeper connection to the brand they love enough to use as a basis for their creativity.

The brand benefits as well. In the short term, the brand gets to avoid the awkward situation of threatening a super fan with legal action. The brand also gets the benefit of the eager partner’s market research and testing.  No matter how big a brand is, it will never be able to imagine all of the products that might find a market online.  That means they are not producing things that could be making them money.  3D printing enhances the cost of that limitation because it even allows a market of 5 or 500 to be met profitably.  In aggregate, these products can drive significant licensing fees.  If fans are selling products, a brand will get a cut of each of those sales.

Trying Something New

This is a slightly different way of doing business, and it won’t be as easy as waking up one day and deciding to do it.  Embracing fans means giving up bit of control.  However many benefits that loosening of control may bring, giving up a bit of control is always hard.  

Traditionally, transaction costs have also been a barrier to this sort of agreement.  Dealing with large numbers of fans – some of whom will not be bringing in large numbers of dollars – can be logistically time consuming and expensive relative to the value created.  

Fortunately, neither of these challenges have to be deal killers.  I’ve argued for a while that brands can set up straightforward licensing rules while reserving the right to pull licenses for fan creations that make them feel uncomfortable.  That helps reduce transaction costs by standardizing agreements and avoid awkward or controversial creations by making it clear to eager partners what the rules are.

Oftentimes, giving up a bit of control is just what is needed to reinvigorate and inspire a fan base. Even a small amount of attention from a brand can go a long way in strengthening the relationships with their fans.  Also, there is no need to open the floodgates immediately.  Starting with a handful of trusted fans can give brands the ability to test the waters and learn what is possible.

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